All Pink'd Out On Breast Cancer?

By Christine Cupaiuolo — October 6, 2006

Five years after Barbara Enrenreich’s masterful critique of ultrafeminine breast cancer commercial culture ran in Harper’s Magazine, it’s the pinkest October ever.

In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, there are plenty of exciting ways to get with the cause, from freshening your breath with pink Tic Tacs to test driving a BMW.

Indeed, BMW will donate $1 for every mile to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (“Choose from the sporty 2006 3 Series or the luxurious 7 Series, or better yet take them both out for a thrilling test drive!”).

But there also seems to be an increased amount of discussion and scrutiny. Within the frame of Ehrenreich’s essay, Rebecca Traister looks at some items on the market this year, including Pink Ribbon Barbie.

“Check her out and tell me how many cancer patients battle their disease while decked out in a mermaid-style chiffon gown,” writes Traister. “And what is there to say about Barbie’s glossy, towering bouffant as an expression of cancer awareness? As the reader who passed this tip along wrote, ‘Does [this Barbie] perform a self-exam when you push a button on its back? Are the breasts and hair removable, to prepare them for future operations and let them know it’s okay?'”

Doubtful, seeing how Barbie gloves go up to her elbows.

Over at I Blame the Patriarchy, Twisty asks, “What will happen to global consumerism if breast cancer is ever really ‘cured’?” Twisty, who lets readers know she was diagnosed one year ago with stage 3 breast cancer, is digging into “Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy,” a new book by Susan King, associate professor of physical and health education and women’s studies at Queen’s University (Ontario):

Under the noble auspices of charity, argues King in Pink Ribbons Inc, global corporations, politicians, and regressive white middle class American ‘family values’ are all getting a big shot in the arm from the pink ribbon juggernaut. Corporations secure, with impunity, free publicity and a means to expand their market share via enlogoed ‘awareness’ campaigns. Politicians support virtually unopposable ‘bipartisan’ breast cancer funding initiatives as directed by behemoths like the massively influential and reactionary Komen Foundation and come out smelling like a rose. The rank and file, conditioned by now to believe that there’s no problem shopping can’t solve, are invited to feel virtuous and altruistic whenever they buy a Yoplait yogurt or a pink KitchenAid mixer.

But where’s the activism? The ostensible focus of all this pseudo-philanthropic pink jockeying is a kind of nebulous breast cancer ‘awareness’, rather than any serious effort at prevention or investigation into what actually causes breast cancer in the first place. Furthermore, once all this ‘awareness’ has produced, via mammography outreach programs or self-exam propaganda (both masquerading as ‘prevention’), a positive diagnosis, there’s not any great push to secure treatment for underserved women.

In other words, when you think of a breast cancer ‘survivor’, you don’t picture a poor black grandmother living in squalor without health insurance (and you certainly don’t imagine a woman who, because of sensible research efforts, never got cancer in the first place.) The Breast Cancer Brand woman is a pro-patriarchy white chick: middle-class, straight, virtuous, concerned with maintaining her femininity, and married with two above-average kids. Ordinarily she’d be content with her life as the unassuming, unpaid family caregiver, but she’s forced by circumstances to be plucky, brave, and heroic.

I’m ordering King’s book today.

In 2002, Ehrenreich gave a provocative keynote address at Breast Cancer Action’s annual town meeting, building off the Harper’s piece and arguing for a more legitimate and comprehensive response:

[We] don’t need to be infantilized when we’re dealing with a potentially fatal disease, we don’t need to be patronized with cosmetics and jewelry, and told to keep smiling, no matter what.

We don’t need more “awareness” of breast cancer—we’re VERY aware, thank you very much. We need treatments that work, and above all, we need to know the cause of this killer, so we can stop it before it attacks another generation.

And we certainly don’t need a breast cancer culture that, by downplaying the possible environmental causes of cancer, serves as an accomplice in global poisoning — normalizing cancer, prettying it up, even presenting it, perversely, as a positive and enviable experience.

What we need is a truly sisterly response to this ghastly disease — one that is both loving and militant, courageous and caring, willing to confront the Cancer Industrial Complex and, when necessary, the entire $16 billion a year breast cancer industry, including the medical profession.

BCA is on it. BCA’s Think Before You Pink campaign, now in its fifth year, is emphasising the questions conscientious consumers should consider as they navigate the sea of pink ribbon promotions.

“Consumers deserve to know how — if at all — their pink ribbon purchases and participation in pink ribbon promotions will support ending the breast cancer epidemic,” said Barbara Brenner, executive director of BCA. “Companies with pink ribbon marketing campaigns need to be more transparent and accountable to people who buy their products.” Here’s one example:

To what breast cancer organization does the money go, and what types of programs does it support?

If research, what kind? Is it the same type of studies we’ve been doing for decades that already gets enormous financial support, or is it innovative research into the causes of breast cancer that always struggles for funds?

If services, is it reaching the people who need it most? Campaigns that are not locally focused may siphon funds away from the community and give them to larger programs that are already well funded.

If advocacy and education, do the programs make steps towards ending the epidemic? Programs supporting “breast health awareness” ignore that we are already well aware that cancer is a problem and it’s time to move from awareness to action.

BCA is also gearing up for a new public education campaign this month that will focus on asking the hard questions about breast cancer that will in turn hopefully lead to better treatment. Consider supporting their efforts.

Then buy the KitchenAid mixer in whatever color you want.

One response to “All Pink’d Out On Breast Cancer?”

  1. I can’t believe I found this article almost a year later, to the day. I can’t believe that I had forgotten that there are still women like me, who are not swathing themselves in pink, who were, and remain, integral activists for women’s health. OBO was published at the time I worked at a ‘subversive’ women’s health clinic. I wonder what happened to my sense of connection to sisterhood.

    I’m about to engage in a one-woman crusade against “Pimping for the Cure.” Wish me luck. In this town, I may be stoned. Would that I had copies of Ehrenreich’s article and King’s PINK, INC. to distribute.

    Thank you. I had forgotten you all are still there.

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